Library and Information Studies (LIS) is a paradox: a vocational academic subject. People who study it plan to work as practitioners, but those who teach it need to be academics.
Studying librarianship as an academic discipline provides aspirant professionals with a reflective overview of the topic and a good understanding of principles that can be applied across varied situations. It should give graduates the ability to apply critical and analytical thinking to their daily work and make considered decisions as they increasingly take on responsibility. Highly practical skills tend to date quickly and are far better taught on the job than in an academic environment, so it is important that LIS courses provide a reflective and intellectual overview of issues in the profession. Moreover, academic research is a vital contributor to the health of the profession, telling us what is not immediately apparent about our information sources, workplaces and users and what we might expect from them in the future.
And yet it is also immensely important that LIS academics have a sound, practical understanding of the information workplace. How can someone teach the next generation of practitioners, when they have not themselves worked in a practitioner role for five years or more? How can they provide students with the preparation they need for their careers if it is not a career they themselves have undertaken?
This post is not intended to criticise LIS academics. I am a practitioner who worked for her PhD part-time while working full-time and who also teaches as a sessional lecturer on an accredited LIS course. I have nothing but respect for those many full-time academics that combine academic teaching and research with deep involvement in the working community, who find the time to speak at conferences and write articles and books which will have little or no impact on their record as an academic. My criticism is for a system which does not support the development in both directions.
I recently made an unsuccessful application for a full-time lecturer position. I met all the essential criteria, but not all that were desirable. Of course there might be many reasons for my not being shortlisted, not least the impressive pool of early career LIS academics whom I have met in my travels. The criteria I did not meet were around things like applying for grant funding and involvement with wider faculty activities, which is very difficult experience to acquire as a full-time practitioner. I can attest that academic achievement while working full time is extremely difficult. While I have been prepared to put time into writing and submitting articles for peer-review, I have not – as a full-time researcher might have – co-written articles with senior academics for high-impact journals. This is not to suggest that, as an academic, carrying out difficult research whilst in the middle of one’s PhD in order to be third-listed in the article credits is an easy option. But it is an almost essential step to academic achievement for an early careers researcher.
I do not blame selection committees for the decisions they make. LIS Department Heads rightly want to be recognised for their academic prestige in the Faculties of Arts, Social Sciences, Technology or Management in which they reside. The Deans of these Faculties need to demonstrate a high level of achievement at the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in research outputs and impacts. Of course they will assess candidates who demonstrate best how they will meet the not inconsiderable challenges facing UK Universities. And practitioner experience does not do this. Anecdotally, I have heard of department heads who have argued for the selection of practitioners with excellent professional records, and who had published in the information trade press, but have been unsuccessful because the candidates had not published sufficiently in high-impact academic journals.
Increasingly stringent demands are made on academics, not just to teach well and carry out research, but to raise funds, recruit students and undertake administrative work. Some have spoken out against what they see as a change in culture and, in particular, an attack on the humanities and social sciences (for example, Marina Warner in the LRB). This affects Library and Information Studies departments and there is evidence that information schools and courses are suffering under these changes. But I think they face further problems. There is no part of the measurement and reward system that compensates harried LIS academics for time and effort spent engaging with the profession. Combining an academic and a practitioner career is not just difficult, but is often perceived negatively by both employers and universities. And making the kind of mid-career move from practice to academia which characterised many of the great Information Studies teachers and researchers of the last fifty years is far, far harder than it once was.
The people who lose out in this situation are, I believe, the students. LIS students are unusual in that their career choice almost guarantees that they will never be high earners and yet they must get into considerable debt in order to acquire their qualification. It is a tribute to their commitment that so many of them are still prepared to undertake post-graduate study under the circumstances. Understandably, many complain about the quality of teaching and support and LIS academics themselves have demonstrated their concern that students are properly equipped for the workplace. My feeling is that if we ask students to acquire £9000 of debt to obtain a LIS MA or MSc, we should guarantee that they will be taught by those with a good understanding of the contemporary workplace. Although academics need to have excellent academic brains and to continue the valuable research the profession needs, a vocational degree requires up-to-date knowledge of the workplace. At present, students only receive this because of the unstinting commitment of certain academics to straddle the worlds of the academic and the practitioner. I don’t know how sustainable this is in the changing world of UK Universities. And that can only be bad for the standards of LIS courses and the students who take them.